Ancient Egyptian papyrus archives. Florentine artifacts covering four centuries of Italian history. Comic books.
Which of these does not belong? At Duke University’s Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library, they all do. Of course, it’s the comic books, with their superhero acrobatics and crisply campy Stan Lee dialogue, that would seem a strange fit for the formal home–but no longer. Duke alums and longtime comic book hounds Edwin and Terry Murray recently donated their sprawling collection to the library, including some 55,000 comic books, as well as 500 role-playing and board games, thousands of fanzines, posters and paraphernalia. Basically, a universe of pulp fiction.
The collection holds real value, however, and not just on the lucrative collector’s market (where the books are thought to go for a solid six-figure price tag). “We’re in the business of documenting culture, and popular culture,” says Tim West, Director of Collection Development at the library. “Comics and the culture around them are such an important part of 20th century America that we knew it was important to take it. As large as it is, and as extensive as it is, it’s exceptional. There are only a few other collections in the country that are as large.”
As much as the collection may have been worth, the Murray brothers didn’t want to break it up in order to sell it. They couldn’t even bring themselves to donate it to the school they loved until it became a challenge to walk around their house.
The collection’s value in academic study can’t yet be measured, but a resurgence in intellectual reverence for superhero hauteur and pop culture relevance suggests that comic books aren’t too many degrees removed from text books anymore. “Comic books reflect what’s going on in society, especially the desires and fantasies and dreams of people, interpreted by the artists and writers of the comics,” says West. In the ’40s, comic book heroes were vigilantes and Nazi-killers, they were wholesome in the ’50s, silly in the ’60s–also the decade when Marvel made the government into the bad guy–and in the ’70s, the heroes began to face social concerns from racism to drug addiction.
“[Comics] are an indicator of what a segment of the American population was interested in over a period of time,” says Dan Breen, who for 20 years owned Chapel Hill’s Second Foundation Bookstore, a comic book shop. “Whatever anyone might think of them, characters like Superman and Batman are icons, recognized all over the world.” The comic books business has done well of late, helped to a point by recent Hollywood adaptations and by the emergence of a lucrative graphic novel market, which the major book chains are beginning to cut into.
It wasn’t always like this. Comics thrived for a long time on newsstands, costing only a dime in the so-called Golden Age (though D.C. Comics recently released special issues for 10 cents once again, in the face of normal multi-dollar prices). Then comics-only stores began to dominate the niche market, and by the ’90s speculators looking to make a future fortune began buying installments in large quantities (thereby erasing the issue’s future worth). The industry nearly collapsed, but with the public and academia now in comics’ corner, the tenuous business is breathing again. “We’re doing pretty well currently, actually,” says Andrew Neal, Second Foundation’s new owner. “After having had the business for a couple months, we’re doing better this summer than expected to. It makes me a little less nervous about my future as a comic shop owner.”
Breen, who frequently sold comics to the Murray brothers, has for the last eight weeks been organizing his own sizable comics collection to be donated–this time to UNC, where he is an alumnus and once worked at the rare book library where his items will end up. Breen’s donation will be 25,000 strong, less than that of the Murray brothers, but itself still weighing in excess of two tons. There won’t be much overlap between the two collections, as Breen’s consists primarily of material from the last 20 years, while the Murray brothers collected more from the earlier decades.
At the end of the month, Breen will turn his collection over to UNC to be categorized and indexed. That process is already under way at Duke with the Murray collection. The library has already received many inquiries about the much-anticipated collection, an unusual situation for the Special Collections group. The collection should be ready for public use in the fall, and West expects a lot of traffic, from cultural anthropologists to art historians, literary scholars and a myriad of academic angles. “And then, of course, they’re just fun to look at,” he says. “There are many people out there for whom these things will bring back a lot of memories, or who just have a fascination.”
No longer considered just a kid’s medium, comics are clearly riding a new wave in popularity. “The times are pretty odd, a lot of people are losing jobs,” says Anne Allison, associate professor and chair of Duke’s cultural anthropology department. “And maybe when things are so uneven in everyday life, maybe that’s when people crave these superheroes who are larger than life.”
“After 20 years of selling comics and eight weeks preparing this collection, one would think that the last thing I’d want to do is look at more comics,” Breen says of his excitement about the Murray collection. “Well, I do.”